The premature release of Bhim Army Chief Chandrashekhar Azad, a Dalit leader from Saharanpur in UP, from prison on humanitarian grounds is a welcome development. Azad was jailed in June 2017 over his alleged role in the Saharanpur caste violence in which four people were killed. His jail term was supposed to last till November 1. While the UP government said Azad was released because of repeated appeals by his ailing mother, it is quite clear that the reason was more political than humanitarian.
With the 2019 Lok Sabha elections only months away, the BJP has been on an overdrive to reach out to Dalits. Leaders are visiting Dalit homes and breaking bread with the community. The Supreme Court recently passed a judgment which appeared to dilute provisions of the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act; Parliament soon passed a Bill to undo the dilution. But the continued incarceration of Azad had become a sticking point, with Dalit groups questioning the sincerity of the BJP’s outreach.
The political challenge to the BJP is particularly daunting in UP, where the party faces the possibility of fighting an united Opposition comprising the SP, BSP, Congress and RLD. If the non-BJP parties manage to stitch up an alliance before 2019, they could pose a major threat to the ruling party. The power of their combined strength was on display in the bypolls earlier this year in Kairana, Gorakhpur, Phulpur and Noorpur, where the BJP had to bite the dust. In UP, OBCs, Dalits and Muslims comprise almost 80 per cent of the population.
The upper castes, the BJP’s main vote base, are only about 20 per cent. In the 2017 UP state polls, the Dalits, Yadavs (who come under OBCs) and Muslims voted overwhelmingly against the BJP, yet the party managed to win by a landslide because of the split in votes among Opposition parties. However, with a mahagathbandhan in the horizon, the BJP has no option but to try and make inroads into these communities. For this, the Dalits and OBCs are the best options for the party.